‘They’re priceless’: Pa. Treasury program reunites unclaimed military medals with veterans, families

Emilee Geist

More than 500 military medals and memorabilia items — from Legion of Merits to Bronze Stars — sit unclaimed inside the country’s largest working vault in Harrisburg. It is Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity’s mission to return those decorations to their rightful owners. “As a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army […]

More than 500 military medals and memorabilia items — from Legion of Merits to Bronze Stars — sit unclaimed inside the country’s largest working vault in Harrisburg.

It is Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity’s mission to return those decorations to their rightful owners.

“As a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, returning these military decorations is probably my favorite part of being treasurer,” said Garrity, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran who holds two Bronze Stars and the Legion of Merit from her service during Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq War. “They’re priceless, making them the most valuable items to enter the vault — but it’s even more precious when we’re able to send them back to the veteran who earned them or to their family.”

Built in 1939 as World War II
began, the vault sits under the Finance Building and holds items from almost every major conflict and branch of the military behind its 60-ton door.

“The decorations and memorabilia — ranging from Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars to badges and dog tags — find their way to treasury’s vault through the unclaimed property program, most often from forgotten safe deposit boxes,” Garrity said.

Information on items in the vault is available in the treasury’s military decoration online database at patreasury.gov/unclaimed-property/medals.

Never sold

The treasury has returned 524 military decorations since the initiative started in 2018, according to Samantha Galvez, treasury press secretary. Of those, 226 military decorations and memorabilia, including two Purple Hearts, have been returned since Garrity took office in January.

There are 513 decorations left, Galvez said, including Legion of Merits, Bronze Stars, Meritorious Service Medals, Army of Occupation Medals, Army Achievement Medals, campaign medals, certificates and dog tags.

At least 18 items are included from Allegheny County, including two Purple Hearts. Eight items are listed as belonging to people tied to Westmoreland County. There are 214 items with the county listed as unknown.

Other items that make their way to the Treasury Department through abandoned safe-deposit boxes and other means are auctioned after about three years, with proceeds kept in perpetuity for the rightful owner to claim. Military decorations are never sold.

People often turn to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh for help in finding family members’ medals and other military memorabilia, said curator Michael Krauss.

“They often come to us wanting to know what medals family members may have received and how to get them,” he said. “They might also believe, at some point in time, that medals may have been donated to us.

“We’re always willing to help someone get started in their search, and we can look through our inventory to see if we have anything.”

If something is found in the Soldiers & Sailors inventory, it’s decided on a case-by-case basis whether it would be returned to the family, Krauss said.

“We try to honor the donor’s wishes,” he said.

Other avenues

Staff members often refer people to the Allegheny County Veterans’ Services office or to a local congressional office, where help may be available.

Congressional offices can help with obtaining a DD-214 form, the official document issued by an armed services branch at the time of discharge or separation from military service. The form contains information including dates, awards and decorations, along with other details.

A service member may have left the service without having received all entitled honors, Krauss said.

“Some might be awarded after they get out, and those can be replaced for the most part,” he said. “The government owes it to them.”

If a person received military funeral honors, the funeral home would have a copy of the form, Krauss said.

Another possible way to find lost medals is at military relic collector shows.

“Medals can be sold, lost or thrown away,” Krauss said. “There’s a huge collector market for them.”

Many new medals can be purchased from online sources.

“The difference comes with a medal given for gallantry,” Krauss said. “For instance, the Medal of Honor is issued by Congress. You can’t just own one, and it’s frowned on to buy or sell them.”

There also are individuals and organizations that research decorations in an attempt to find them and return them to families, he said.

“You look at the medals and ribbons on a soldier’s chest and they tell a story,” Krauss said. “They represent a very meaningful part of a soldier’s life and experience, an achievement.”

“Every military decoration that finds its way to treasury’s vault is a piece of someone’s story and a symbol of their selfless sacrifice,” Garrity said. “It’s a true honor to return these decorations and to let my fellow veterans and their families know how much we respect and appreciate their service to our country.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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